Something old, something new | Madrid, Spain

Images of the ground in and around the CaixaForum building in Madrid can only barely begin to suggest how thoroughly impressive the entire space is. But even they, on their own, manage to hint at the broad sweep, thoughtfulness and consideration for consistency with which the turn-of-the-century former industrial building and space around it was remodeled and turned into the present-day contemporary art center.

Located in the middle of Madrid’s three most import art venues – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, the CaixaForum building – originally a power station built in 1899 in the industrial style typical of Madrid at the time, was redesigned by the Swiss architectural duo Herzog & de Meuron (who also designed London’s Tate Modern 2, which used to be a power station as well).

In the renovation process, the old brick structure was hollowed out on the inside, lifted up off the ground and additional floors, encased with rusted steel, were constructed on top. The reconstruction, which took place between 2001 and 2007, created an entirely new and thoroughly impressive space while still giving a nod to the building’s historical appearance. Next to the main structure, in stark contrast to its brick and rusted steel façade, now stands a 24-meter high “vertical garden” – a large green wall, on which 15,000 plants from 250 species grow.

The garden, designed in collaboration with the botanist Patrick Blanc, is supposed to establish a connection with the Botanical Garden, located across the Paseo del Prado from the CaixaForum, while the wooden railing along the staircase inside the building somehow seems to organically tie the otherwise industrial interior to the garden.

I suspect that I would have been slower to notice the inspired way in which the building was transformed and the thoughtfulness with which it interacts with its surroundings if it weren’t for my recent dismal visit to Sofia’s newly opened, hastily “brought up to date” and hugely disappointing Museum of Contemporary Art.

When the Zeitgeist falls out of step with the times | Sofia, Bulgaria

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the inspiring intervention with the Soviet Red Army monument in the center of Sofia. Overnight, an anonymous graffiti artist transformed a part of the monument, which until then had featured a group of heavily armed Russian soldiers and partisans going into battle, into a colorful posse of comic book characters, superheroes and popular culture icons. Spray-painted underneath the unlikely congregation, a caption read: “In step with the times.”

The short-lived intervention was not just masterfully carried out, but also managed, with a single sweep, to raise issues that have been brewing for years on so many different levels: from pure aesthetics to discussions about contemporary art, national symbols, history and politics.

I thought it was brilliant.

Just four days later, the superheroes disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as they appeared. In a move that must have put the guerrilla graffiti artist to shame with its swiftness and secrecy, the Sofia Municipality had the monument scrubbed clean in the middle of the night.

A couple of weeks after the superheroes’ short-lived appearance, I went to see the monument again – now mostly back to its usual black. Although only traces of colorful paint now testify for its brief transformation, they still stand as a reminder that this momentous (and momentary) transformation ever happened. Although public debate on the intervention has mostly died down by now, the passing of time seems to be doing nothing to diminish my fascination with it.

Not entirely by chance, my visit to the monument was preceded by a trip to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Sofia, which – in what is surely not a mere coincidence either, opened on the exact day on which the soldiers and partisans woke up as Superheroes. But even without this contrast, Sofia’s new museum of contemporary art is a confusing and sad place.

Visitors are first met by a stone plaque that reads “Museum of Contemporary Art,” which looks more like a tombstone on a grave than anything else. A path among decidedly un-contemporary sculptures then leads to the museum’s entrance. The turn-of-the-century, former arsenal building has been brought up to date in the most superficial and unengaged way I could imagine – by renovating its original façade and smacking some iron and glass appendixes onto it. Inside, the opening exhibition isn’t any less perplexing: in one corner of the space, a couple of Christo and Jeanne-Claude lithographs uncomfortably rub shoulders with a few silver-framed Chagalls and Picassos. The main exhibition consists of decorative ceramics from Norway.

I was dumbfounded, the earnest assurances from the ladies working in the museum that contemporary sculptures will be put in the park behind the museum and the current exhibition will be replaced by a permanent, presumably contemporary one, doing little to ease my uneasy state.

To add insult to injury, as a final stroke, the abbreviated name commonly used to refer to the museum in Bulgarian is SAMSI (Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art). In Bulgarian, ‘sam si’ means ‘you are alone’.

Night(s) [and day] of museums and galleries | Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Last weekend, I went to Plovdiv for the 2010 edition of the Night of the museums and galleries. Unlike previous years, when the event took place over a single evening at the end of September or the beginning of October, this time the packed program stretched over two nights and encompassed an entire day.

Sometimes, distracted by the buzz of the crowds or my indecision of where to head next, I got disoriented in the darkness of the town’s old part or around the winding streets of its center.

I didn’t know whether to head East or South.

Every once in a while, I had to pause and consult the map.

But, even without it, the pavement was full of signs, and the patters on the streets and sidewalks always pointed to something else to see or somebody else to meet.

Some of the art I saw was intentional and some of it – accidental… but at all times, there were places to go, shows to see, friends to run into, strangers to observe.

Amid all the roaming around, the bathroom breaks proved almost as enlightening as the exhibitions. Some shared my obsession with pictures of feet on the ground, served as clichés to entertain the masses, while others made for contemporary works of art and confirmed stereotypes in a way that would have made David Černý smug.

House of Terror | Budapest, Hungary

Maybe because Bulgaria hasn’t done much of anything to mark or remember its communist past, I am always interested to see how that past is remembered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. (This discrepancy probably has something to do with the fact that the Bulgarians’ relationship with the regime was much less turbulent than those of other nations.)

Having been born and spent (almost entirely) the first decade of my life in communist Bulgaria, I have a particular kind of fascination with the history of communist regimes. Although I never truly experienced any of the real terrors of totalitarianism, I seem to internalize historical testaments of them more than someone who has lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain for whom they may be more abstract.

And so, I enter the House of Terror in Budapest with a kind of trepidation and the knowledge that I have to see it though it isn’t going to be pleasant. The museum is a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary. Located on Andrássy út 60, the building that houses it first served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and then of the State Protection Authority – Hungary’s secret police between 1945 and 1956.

In the museum’s middle is a kind of atrium where a Soviet tank now stands, surrounded by walls lined with the large, black-and-white portraits of the people who were held captive, tortured and killed in the building.

The museum’s two upper floors, not unlike Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie museum, offer a slightly campy mixture of communist and Nazi paraphernalia arranged in situ with reconstructions, archive video footage, mannequins dressed in uniforms and walls plastered with pop-culture and propaganda posters. Some of the rooms are set up thematically, with a focus on different aspects of the regimes, and others – historically, dedicated to certain periods.

A good illustration of the absurd ways in which the Soviet Union demonstrated its supremacy and grandeur is in the ‘Gulag’ room. The entire floor of the room, probably measuring at least 12 meters in length and 4 meters in width, is covered wall to wall by a massive carpet-map* of the Soviet Union’s network of gulags. The labor camps where many Hungarians died are marked by cone-shaped cases containing artifacts from the deceased.

Things, however, stop being so abstract and become much more real on the elevator descent into the basement. During the excruciatingly slow ride, which takes about 3 minutes to go down only two floors, a video plays of a former guard recounting the process of the executions that took place in the basement. After his account, filled with minute details and told in a matter-of-fact way, I step into the basement wearily.

The underground level of the building is seemingly left mostly as it was, and though it has obviously been thoroughly aired out and cleaned, at this point I have seen enough to make me imagine detecting the smell of death mixed into the basement’s dampness or to think the dark spots on the execution room’s floor aren’t just dirt. In some of the cells, photographs hang over the cots – presumably of the people who were incarcerated there. There is also a room with padded floor and walls, and a solitary confinement space big enough for a person to only be able to stand up in – inducing such claustrophobia that when I try to enter one of the regular cells, I can only go as far as crossing its threshold with one foot, let alone closing the door behind me.

As I step out of the dark museum into the sunny street, I realize the museum was pretty much what I expected. Not pleasant but important to see. And though I’m sure it faces all kinds of criticism, both for the narrative it has chosen to present and the way it presents it, I feel like it is surely better than nothing. Which, incidentally, pretty much sums what has been done in Bulgaria to face and remember the communist past since the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago.

*Taking pictures inside the museum is not allowed. But, what can I say, I’m a risk-taker for the sake of my art.